- Alhambra Palace and Fortress
- A Short Visit to Granada
- How To Eat For Free In Andalusia
- Cabo de Gata National Park
Alhambra Palace and Fortress Complex, Granada
Alhambra is Spain’s most visited monument, with approx. 2 million people visiting per year, and that breaks down to around 8500 people per day. The palace and fortress are situated in the city of Granada in southern Spain’s Andalusia region.
The Al-Hamra` palace was built in the mid-13th century by the Arab Nasrid emir Mohammed ben Al-Ahmar of the Emirate of Granada. It was converted into a royal palace in 1333 by Yusuf I, Sultan of Granada.
The Fountain of the Lions alabaster fountain and basin with 12 marble lions to symbolize strength, power and sovereignty. At the edge of the fountain there is a poem written by Ibn Zamrak. This praises the beauty of the fountain and the power of the lions, but it also describes their ingenious hydraulic systems and how they actually worked, which baffled all those who saw them.
After the Christian Reqonquista in 1492, the site became the Royal Court of Ferdinand and Isabella, and it was in this palace that Christopher Columbus received royal endorsement for his expedition to sail the “wrong way” to India, and thus discovering the Americas.
This is the Puerta de la Justicia (Gate of Justice), a massive horseshoe archway surmounted by a square tower and used by the Moors as an informal court of justice.
Access from the city to the Alhambra Park is afforded by the Puerta de las Granadas (Gate of Pomegranates), a triumphal arch dating from the 15th century. A steep ascent leads past the Pillar of Charles V, a fountain erected in 1554, to the main entrance of the Alhambra.
A Short Visit to Granada
We would like to call this a short visit, just because we did not have too much time in Granada, just two nights, and the majority of one day was used at what most people come to Granada for, the Alhambra palace.
The Alhambra palace and fortress from the 13th century is the most visited monument in Spain, with approx. 8500 people per day buying tickets to see the Arabic architecture and wonders of the Alhambra. Read more about our visit here.
From the city centre of Granada the Alhambra is present from every corner with its elevated position above the city. The best place to get a great view of the palace and buildings is to walk up the hill to the Albaicin area for an epic sunset view from San Nicolàs or Santa Isabel La Real church.
Albaicín is a neighborhood in Granada that maintains the layout of Medieval Moorish narrow streets. With its neat narrow lanes and well-kept traditional houses, the area has retained its old charm and is the ideal place to discover Moorish architecture.
We walked from Plaza De Santa Ana and up along the river past some of the spectacular old residences, old bridges and lots of cosy cafés, this is a touristy area, but it is a must see when in Granada. When you feel like it, just start walking up the small alleys and streets towards the top of the mountain. Check out Love Granada’s Albaicin tips.
Also worth mentioning is that Granada is one of the few places left in Spain that still serve free tapas with drinks at the bars and bodegas around town. We had some great cheap meals while visiting. Read more about our experience in the tapas bars of Granada here.
The cathedral of Granada is also a grand sight. It took 181 years to build, and the site was the location of the Great Mosque of Granada for over 600 years. Construction of the new church started in 1523, and the standout design triumphs include the awe-inspiring cupola and the grand church organ. The church has a kind of weird placement, normally you think that a grand cathedral should have a grand plaza or something like this at the front, but this cathedral is built in on all sides by other buildings. No grand square here, just alleys and a small patio style entrance to one of the most amazing churches in Spain.
We stayed at the sublime Eurostars Gran Via hotel, it has grand views from the roof terrace and location wise it is smack bang in the middle of where you need to be to explore Granada.
If you are driving into the city centre with a car, you need a good GPS! It is a maze of small narrow streets, alleys, and even smaller alleys. We were sure we were stuck in a narrow passage more than once trying to navigate to the nearest parking garage to the hotel.
Plaza de Bib-Rambla and Plaza de la Romanilla are the two main plazas in the area surrounding the cathedral, and the streets around the plazas are the main shopping areas of Granada.
We visited during easter, and it was quite cold and wet during our visit. It is worth to remember that Granada sits on the Sierra Nevada mountains at an elevation of around 700 metres abrove sea level. In fact just a short car ride from Granada is the Sierra Nevada ski resort home to the southernmost skiing destination in Europe. And while the winter can get quite chilly and wet, the summers get equally scorching and hot in Granada, temperatures often hitting 40 celcius during summer.
We would have loved to spend some more time in Granada, the city deserves it for sure, we only got a fleeting impression of the main parts of the city. The history of the place is very interesting, and the juxtaposition of Arabic and European styles of architecture and the city’s layout is very different indeed. We will come back one day for sure to see more and to eat more of that delish tapas.
How To Eat For Free In Spain’s Andalusian Region (The Tapa Experience)
The tasty tapas of Spain are well known for most tourists who have visited any Spanish town or island, and if you have not ever eaten at a tapas restaurant or bodega, you are in for a treat next time you are in Spain! And like our friend Geir said: “If you have not ever eaten at a tapas restaurant or bodega, you haven’t really been to Spain”. What is served as a tapa varies according to region but in general it is a mouthful of something simple, practical, and cheap. From ready made snacks such as olives and nuts, to all things fried and cured. The patatas bravas (spiced roasted potatoes), the croqueta, the guiso (stew) and of course our favourite, the Spanish ham (jamon) will all be on the menu in any tapas restaurant around the country.
Tapas were invented in Andalusia. The word means “cover” and in Andalusian wine-making regions, a saucer is customarily placed to cover a glass of wine to keep the little fruit flies from swarming in. There are plenty of stories from around Spain as to how and where the tapas originated, and why it is called a tapa, but this is probably the most accurate one of them all. A tidbit of food placed on the dish helped attract clients to the wine bar or bodega, and thus the tapas were born.
Years ago the tapas used to be free with drinks all around Spain. Today, tapas bars in most of Spain either charge for tapas or give out paltry bar snacks, like chips, nuts or a few olives. But in Andalusia, especially in the less-touristed eastern part of the region, the tapas are still free, and the drinks are still cheap.
The first time we encountered free tapas was in Granada at Bar Los Diamantes. We visited the city to see the Alhambra and ended up in what looked like a very local bar with food. We normally wander into any place that looks like it is filled with locals, we know that the food will be good and cheap. We had great hunger, so we ordered beer, wine, and some smaller dishes with food. When the drinks arrived, we also got two plates of food, one with fried small fish and one with patatas bravas.
We then had to ask the waiter if this was our food, and if it was our food, this was not what we ordered. In broken English he told us that this was the food we got with the drinks, and the food we ordered would come in a while. A bit nonplussed we ate the delish plate of food we got with the drinks, and as we were thirsty, we ordered more drinks. With the drinks came some more food! And then our order came! We had suddenly and without knowing dropped into a bar with free tapas, what joy! It was so tasty and cost us absolutely nothing (the food with the drinks) and had we known, we would not have ordered any extra food.
We encountered this a few more times while travelling around Andalusia and got used to ordering a glass or two of wine, and then being offered tasty platters of food together with the wine. We only paid for drinks, never for the food.
How do you know it is free food with drinks?
It is not a question easily answered, one does not simply walk into a bar and ask, “do you have free food with drinks?”. Our recommendation is if you are thirsty, go into a bar or bodega, order a glass of wine and beer, and then see what happens. Some places you will get some olives, some places will serve up huge portions of fried goodness in a basket. Especially in Granada the portions were huge! Tapa-hopping is part of the convivial Andalusian way of life. With a few friends you stop in at several bars to have a glass of wine and sample the tapa specialities of each. It is without a doubt our favourite food!
Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park
Cabo de Gata-Níjar Natural Park in the south-eastern corner of Spain is Andalusia’s largest protected coastal area, a wild and isolated landscape with some of Europe’s oldest geological features. Spain’s southeast coast, where the park is situated, is the only region in mainland Europe with a true hot desert climate.
The park is located between the cities of Alicante and Malaga on the southern coast of Spain. It is probably the only pristine, non-developed, bit of coastline left in Spain.
The eponymous mountain range of the Sierra del Cabo de Gata, with its highest peak El Fraile, form Spain’s largest volcanic rock formation with sharp peaks and crags in red and ochre hues. It falls steeply to the Mediterranean Sea, creating jagged 100-metre (330 ft) high cliffs riven by gullies, creating hidden coves and white, sandy beaches.
We stayed in the small town of San Jose, a fishing village with a few hotels, nice restaurants and a beachfront that is easily accessible from anywhere in town. Our hotel was like most of the hotels in town, a small family run establishment. Hotel Dona Pakyta is nice and has a good location in town.
It is also a movie buffs paradise! Especially for those with a hankering for spaghetti westerns. Numerous films have been produced in the area, due to the desert climate and the similarity to the American western landscape. Not in the park but close by is the Tabernas Desert, most of those locations are now theme parks, but visits are still cool. Movies shot in the Tabernas Desert and in Cabo de Gata includes monumental movies like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, A Fist Full of Dollars, Laurence of Arabia and Cleopatra and many more. Wikipedia has a good list of what has been filmed on location.
In the park itself, there are some epic locations. The farmhouse at the end of this dirt track between San Jose and the beaches of Monsul and Genovese was used in the spaghetti western featuring Clint Eastwood “For A Few Dollars More”. It was featured as “Alomogordo Prison” where Clint’s character liberates one of his compadres.
Playa de Monsul a bit further up the road was used in the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where father of Indiana Jones (played by Sean Connery) brings down a German fighterplane with the help of his umbrella and a flock of seagulls (that were actually pidgeons). Unique Almeria has a good page on all things movie related.
The beaches in the park are all genuinely nice and big, and due to the lack of development, they are wonderfully “wild” and unspoilt. Cabo de Gata is a great stop on any roadtrip along the southern Spanish coast, if you want to see what Spain pre-development was like, this is the place to go.
For most northern Europeans Alicante is a well-known charter destination for the sun worshipping sun starved northerners. It is more known as a destination than a vibrant Spanish town with great food, plazas and wonderful narrow streets filled with cafes and bodegas. Alicante is blessed with a beach in the city centre, so to combine a weekend of swimming in the sea, eating and drinking in a cosy atmosphere around town, all within a few minutes’ walk of your hotel is no problem. We will compare Alicante to it’s bigger brother Barcelona, both boast a pristine beach in the city and a plethora of restaurants and bars, plus the typical Spanish old town areas with plenty of soul and charm. Alicante is the perfect weekend destination if you crave sun, sea, and delish Spanish food!
It is not so often that we rave about our accommodation, usually a hotel is a hotel, and hotels tends to be quite the same wherever you are. In Alicante we found an exception to that rule. We got a recommendation from a friend in Spain that claimed that the Hospes Amerigo was unique and worth staying at for the nights we had in Alicante. And it was a very cool surprise. The hotel is a former Dominican convent, very nicely done up and decorated in a Mediterranean style interior. All over the hotel you can see the old walls, niches, and remnants of the old convent. Also being a stone throw from the waterfront helps elevate this hotel to an all time favourite.
The Spanish Mercados
An institution we always visit in any Spanish town is the main mercado of the town. The mercado is something we do not have any more in Norway, a grand market where fishmongers, cheesemonger, wine merchants and fruit sellers do their daily business, and the local housewives goes shopping every morning for fresh produce. It is an assault on the senses, the smells, the brightness of the fruit, the colours of the vegetables, it is a fascinating sight for a foodie to walk the mercados of Spain. The other good thing is that the merchants happily hand out small tastes of their produce, with pride they present ham, wine and other small morsels to whet your appetite.
Or you could go for the tasting platters many of them offer, cheap ways to get high quality food from local people who take pride in their craft. The Mercado Central in Alicante in no exception to the rule, it is grand! The eclectic modernist building was completed in 1922, and it is a must see for any visitor to Alicante.
We realized while going through the photos we took in Alicante that we had eaten a lot of great food while visiting. We love Spanish food, and in Alicante we had many great food experiences in a couple of different establishments. Most of them we just stumbled by and our normal rule being “if there are a lot of locals eating in the bodega/restaurant/café, the food must be good” and normally this rule is king. If you hear non-Spanish languages spoken around the tables, and if you are on the main street or beach promenade of the city, you might expect touristy food and touristy prices.
Do not be afraid to explore the unknown dark bodega, we have ordered mystery items more than a few times when the menu was not in English, and mostly the food we get is delish, even though we are not sure what we ordered. Basically avoid the main streets and beachfronts, stick to the backstreets and local neighbourhoods. And it is worth mentioning that the Spanish eat dinner late, very late compared to us northerners. Many restaurants will not open until 8pm and most locals will not eat until 9-10pm at nights, so if you are early for dinner, the restaurant might seem empty, but that’s just because the locals have not arrived yet.
Just across the street from the Amerigo hotel was a small corner restaurant called Tapa-Caña (D`Tablas) that we stumbled into an afternoon when the hunger was great, and the energy levels were low. Here they served small glasses of beer (cañas) and planks (planchas) of food. The waiters came around the room with trays filled with planks that had some small dish of food on top of it. And they cost 1 Euro per plank! I think the beer was 1 Euro as well. Planks with fried fish, calamari, cheese, sausages, and other tasty morsels came by our table, and we picked what looked good. It was so delish that we came back every day for lunch or dinner, a great way to get cheap drinks and cheap fantastic, tasty food! The address is Calle Rafael Altamira, just across from the Amerigo hotel.
Arroz is rice in Spanish. Not to be confused with paella, that is something slightly different. To make an exceptionally long history short, paella is from Valencia region, and not served traditionally with seafood. Arroz is rice dishes served outside Valencia, and the menu will refer to “Arroz con….” And whatever the ingredients for the rice dish should be for the day or region. Both dishes are served in the same type of shallow wide pan. And the rice dishes of Spain are normally eaten for lunch, not dinner. We had some great arroz in Alicante, and we recommend seeking out a traditional bodega that serves this very Spanish deliciousness.
And last but not least we would like to give another shoutout to the humble but might Spanish bodega! The number of mouth-watering meals we have eaten at those very local restaurants are amazing. Ørjan loves the Spanish ham from the black footed pig, the pata negra (jamòn Ibèrico) ham comes in different qualities and price range. From slightly industrial made mass produced, to artisan almost wild roaming pigs in oak groves eating grass, herbs, acorns, chestnuts, and roots. The curing process of the meat takes at least 12 months, and the best producers cure their ham for up to 48 months. It is mouth-watering good to get a plate of freshly cut ham, the smoky oak like taste is like nothing else, it is pure meat luxury.
We happened to be in Alicante during easter holidays, and this is a big thing, if not the biggest thing, on the Spanish calendar during the year. The holy week or Semana Santa is one of the most flamboyant religious festivals to witness, and it is held in every city across Spain from Palm Sunday to Resurrection Sunday.
A series of spectacular weeklong pageants and processions take place to mark the occasion with large floats carrying lifelike figurines and effigies carried by groups of people through the city streets. The floats are paraded through each district by members of the local Catholic fraternity or Brotherhood. A common feature or the processions are the nazareno penitential robe which consists of a tunic and a hood, it looks extremely dramatic and a little disturbing if you do not know what is going on in the processions.
The first time we saw this we had to ask the locals who the hooded figures were. In short those who wear the robe with the pointed hood are persons who seek atonement to repent for sins committed, the hood letting them keep their privacy while walking in the procession. Combine all this with marching bands, kids, roman soldiers and lots of robes and colourful hats, you have the easter processions of Spain. We were so lucky that the local procession walked straight under our hotel room window, so we had front row seats to this spectacle.
The Santa Barbara Castle is located on the top of Benacantil Mountain, 166 metres above sea level; it gives to the city a great strategic value. From there, you can see almost the entire bay of Alicante.
Playa Postiguet is the city beach, great for morning swims or lazy afternoons. There is also a good hotel option on the beach in the Melià Alicante hotel.
A great ramble is to walk the narrow street of the old town just under the Santa Barbara Castle. This neighbourhood is filled with local bars and restaurants, narrow alleyways, and cosy plazas. Plaza Quijano and Plaza Del Carmen behind the cathedral is very charming and great for a drink and some tapas a late lazy evening after a long hard day at the beach. Check out Visit Alicante for more inside tips to a great city and region.